Learning to Love the Bomb

Learning to Love the Bomb

While I saw Edward Teller at several scientific conferences and heard him lecture, I met him only once. It left an indelible memory. It was at the end of April 1954.


While I saw Edward Teller at several scientific conferences and heard him lecture, I met him only once. It left an indelible memory. It was at the end of April 1954. By this time I was far enough along on my PhD thesis that it was clear I might actually get my degree. The weapons laboratories were hiring interns, and my name had been given to Teller as someone who might be recruited for Livermore, a laboratory created in 1952 at Teller’s instigation as a competitor to Los Alamos in the design of hydrogen bombs. Livermore was located on an old Navy base not far from San Francisco. I’m not sure that its purpose was widely known. I doubt if I knew it, but I thought it might be interesting to meet Teller.

We agreed to meet in the lobby of a Washington hotel where the American Physical Society was having a conference. I had no trouble recognizing him, and he suggested we talk in his suite, where it would be quieter. He explained that he was giving a talk the following day, and to prepare it he would present it to me spontaneously; he asked me to interrupt if I had any questions. When we got to his suite he began pacing around the living room, lecturing. I think “lumbering” would be a better description. In 1928, when he had gone to Munich to study, he lost his right foot in an accident involving a streetcar. In later years Teller became an avid hiker but his prosthesis made his gait somewhat awkward. Suddenly in the middle of this lecture–during which I had remained mute, having no questions and not much understanding–he stopped and said, with no explanation, that he’d much rather be discussing physics than politics.

I had no idea what he was talking about until a couple of months later. On June 15 the Atomic Energy Commission released the full transcripts of a hearing before its Personnel Security Board, which had begun on April 12 and lasted until May 6, the result of which was that Teller’s colleague J. Robert Oppenheimer lost his clearance and much of his reputation. Teller and Oppenheimer had had a difficult relationship, dating from the time that they were both at Los Alamos during the war. Even then Teller was fixated on building a hydrogen bomb and would not do the work of the laboratory that Oppenheimer was directing, which was trying to build a fission bomb. Teller was a witness–a hostile witness–and his testimony was devastating. At the end of it he was asked if he was having difficulty recruiting young people to come to Livermore. He replied, “I am going to spend the next three days in the Physical Society in trying to persuade additional young people to join in.” I was one of the “additional young people,” but I must not have made much of an impression, because I never heard from either Teller or Livermore, for which I am extremely grateful.

While the hearing ended Oppenheimer’s work for the government, it also ended Teller’s relationship with much of the physics community. To many he became a pariah, and people with whom he had worked at places like Los Alamos would no longer talk to him. It pushed Teller further and further into the right-wing community, which shared his paranoia about what they perceived to be the Soviet menace. It is impossible to be neutral about this. You may think Teller was the savior of Western civilization, or you may think he was an unprincipled fanatic, but you won’t be indifferent. That is why it is so difficult to write an objective biography. I think the British television producer Peter Goodchild, also author of a biography of Oppenheimer, makes a decent attempt. But the facts speak for themselves. I was amused by his epilogue, where he tries to give a balanced summary. For example, after pointing out Teller’s specious arguments about the “benign” nature of radioactive fallout from nuclear weapons testing, he says, “Teller fought what he saw as the hysterical, ill-educated and irrational fear of nuclear activities with great vigour. He battled against the fears of fallout in the 1950s and his argument–that there was an over-reaction to the dangers of fallout–still has support from researchers to-day.” One wonders who these unnamed “researchers” are. It’s as if he were summarizing another book. In the body of the book he makes it abundantly clear what he really thinks of Teller. Since I share the view that Teller was often an unprincipled and intellectually dishonest fanatic, I am generally admiring of Goodchild’s book. The question is what made Teller this way. In this I think Goodchild misses an important point, because he does not understand the physics. If this were a biography of, say, Einstein, that would be fatal, but since so much of Teller’s later life was political, the science is somewhat secondary.

Goodchild’s scientific misunderstandings are too numerous to mention them all, but let me give one example. He gives an account of the discovery of fission that is rather muddled. Then he goes on to describe the first practical application of fission, which was the construction of a reactor–it went critical on December 2, 1942–at the University of Chicago by a group led by Enrico Fermi. His description is totally confused. Two crucial elements of a reactor are the fuel–in this case natural uranium–and the so-called “moderator.” Of the latter, Goodchild writes, “Then, by withdrawing or immersing the uranium in the moderator [in this case purified graphite], the reaction could be accelerated, or dampened, or stopped altogether.” He has confused the role of the moderator with that of the control rods that are made of a neutron-absorbing material and are moved in and out. The function of the moderator, which along with the uranium is never moved anywhere, is to slow the neutrons and thus enhance the fission reaction. Of course, these howlers could have been prevented if a competent physicist had vetted his manuscript. But there is a deeper point.

The question that any biographer of Teller has to try to answer is how good a physicist he was. What did he actually accomplish? To me this, along with his experiences under the brief Communist regime in Hungary when he was a young man, is a profound key to Teller’s character and behavior. After the Communists were overthrown there was an outburst of anti-Semitism that affected the Tellers. On the physics, I have asked several physicists who knew Teller when he was actively doing physics how they would rank him. Among them there is agreement that few physicists of his generation had more natural ability. Some told me they thought he was more gifted than Oppenheimer. But given his gifts, what did he actually achieve in physics? This, incidentally, is often asked about Oppenheimer. I believe the answer is, relatively little. After the war Teller taught at the University of Chicago from 1946 to 1949. Goodchild, as a testimony to Teller’s productivity at that time, notes that he co-wrote thirteen papers. He does not tell us what role Teller played in writing these papers or what their significance was. I certainly have not read them, and I am not aware of anything Teller did then that had much impact. Goodchild quotes some of Teller’s contemporaries, all of whom note that Teller had what used to be called “grasshopper mind.” He was simply unable to concentrate on a single problem. This, incidentally, affected his teaching. Physicists who were in his classes inform me that they were awful. He never prepared his lectures. Goodchild notes that while at Chicago Teller had what Goodchild refers to as a “mid-life crisis.” He was not getting along with his colleagues and was deeply depressed because work on the hydrogen bomb was not progressing. He was also not very satisfied with the physics he was doing. But I think this frustration goes back much further.

Teller came to this country in 1935 from England, where he had been granted haven after the Nazis removed anyone with a Jewish background from teaching in a university. (This was particularly ironic in Teller’s case, since he had come to Germany in 1926 to escape anti-Semitism in Hungary, and had stayed on to finish his PhD.) Until then, he had not done physics. His thesis, which he finished under the guidance of Werner Heisenberg in 1930, was in physical chemistry. From Goodchild’s description, it sounds like pretty mundane number-crunching. In fact, Heisenberg had to tell him that he had done enough and could stop. The problem was apparently so open-ended that it was not clear to Teller if he had solved it. This is usually not a good sign.

For several years after his arrival in the States, Teller continued to work in physical chemistry and was considered a bit of an outsider by the physicists with whom he came into contact. One of them was the wonderful Russian eccentric George Gamow, one of the most creative physicists of the twentieth century. Gamow had escaped from the Soviet Union and had relocated to George Washington University, where he was the chairman of the department. Like almost everyone else, he had been impressed by Teller’s brilliance and brought him into the department. Teller himself has said that while he was there one of his main jobs was to sort out Gamow’s ideas. Ironically, later in his career there were people who performed the same service for Teller. At least one paper that he wrote with Gamow, on radioactive decays of nuclei in which electrons are produced–so-called beta decay–is a kind of classic. Who contributed what to this paper I do not know.

There is another thing that people who knew Teller at this time agree on. He was a charming, collegial man. The Teller household was practically a hotel. Other physicists loved to talk to him about their problems. He would say, “I don’t understand it, but I will explain it to you.” Very few people after Los Alamos would have called him “charming and collegial.” What changed? When I was writing a New Yorker profile of the physicist Hans Bethe, who knew Teller from his European days, I discussed this with him. To me the answer was clear. When Oppenheimer first thought of a nuclear weapons laboratory he had the naïve idea that if the explosive material was available it would take just a handful of his colleagues–students and the like–to make a bomb. He soon realized that he was going to need a full-scale laboratory and that this would have to be organized into divisions. Among them was the theoretical division–the T-division–and to run it Oppenheimer appointed Bethe. Teller never got over this. He was still angry about it in the memoirs he published in 2001, at age 93. He died two years later. All of his insecurities as a physicist were reinforced by what he perceived as a terrible slight. From that point on he refused to do the work of the laboratory. His hostility toward Oppenheimer can, I think, be traced to this decision. I also think the fact that he did not find real satisfaction in the physics he was able to do contributed to the lack of balance he showed when it came to politics. Everything became personal. Bethe, for example, while certainly as concerned as Teller about the security of this country, was able to examine alternatives objectively. It was unthinkable that Bethe would falsify the scientific basis of a weapons program, something that Teller did routinely, simply to get his way. I have always thought the fact that Bethe had a deeply satisfying scientific career–he won the Nobel Prize in 1967–gave him the balanced outlook that Teller never achieved.

The part of Goodchild’s book–most of it–that I found truly excellent had to do with Teller’s activities after the war. Goodchild has put this together more fully than anyone else, and I learned many things that were new to me. There are three major themes, each one of which would take a long essay to adumbrate. They are the hydrogen bomb, the test ban treaty and Star Wars. I will give the elements briefly.

Teller’s obsession with the hydrogen bomb preceded Los Alamos. Once there, it was all he really wanted to work on. At that time, and for many years thereafter, he devoted himself to what was known as the “classical Super.” Put very crudely, this is a container into which you put the light elements that you hope to fuse together with the release of energy. Typically these are isotopes of hydrogen, such as deuterium and tritium. Into the container you put a fission bomb. When it explodes, you hope that it generates enough heat to cause the fusion. The advantage of the classical Super is that there is no limit to the amount of fusion fuel you can put into the container and so no limit to the strength of the bomb. The disadvantage is that it does not work. For almost a decade Teller tried different configurations, only to have them shot down. His response each time was to call into question the competence of the messenger. But the laws of nature are quite impersonal and do not yield to ad hominem arguments.

The situation with regard to the possibilities of making a hydrogen bomb changed radically in December 1950. The exact sequence of events has been disputed ever since. It will probably never be settled, because a number of the principals are now dead and because the material is still in considerable part classified. Goodchild gives various versions, none of which can be verified for the reasons I cited. But it must be said that here again Goodchild clearly does not understand the physics. I believe that what happened was the Polish mathematician Stanislaw Ulam had the breakthrough idea. He was not working directly on the hydrogen bomb. Indeed, he was one of the people who showed that the classical Super would not work. He was trying to improve the efficiency of the fission bomb. His idea was to use the material flux from an exploding fission weapon to compress a container that held the light isotopes. This compression would dramatically increase the fission reaction rates. Once Teller became persuaded that this notion might work, he modified the design so that it became the basis of a hydrogen bomb. Teller had the idea of using the X-rays that carry off most of the energy from the primary fission bomb to do the compression. Exactly how this works is still classified. When this modified design was presented to the people in the field, they agreed with Oppenheimer that it was “technically sweet,” so we have hydrogen bombs.

There are two ironies to report. Once the design was accepted, Teller left Los Alamos because he could no longer control the project. In his mind it had become his, and he was to the end very ungracious about Ulam’s role. The second irony was emphasized to me by Freeman Dyson: The hydrogen bomb was irrelevant. Ordinary fission bombs can be made powerful enough. Indeed, the current arsenals of the United States and Russia look the same as if they consisted of fission bombs alone.

Teller was adamantly opposed to any agreement to stop nuclear testing in the atmosphere. His concern was the continual development of nuclear weapons, but he argued for his position like a charlatan. He found some statistic that Denver had, for a period, a lower rate of leukemia than some cities at sea level. He argued that small amounts of radiation might therefore be good for you. His most cynical attempt to prolong testing above ground was something that was called Project Plowshare. This was presented as a program to accomplish useful tasks, like earth-moving, with atomic explosions. An example, noted by Goodchild, was to dig a harbor at Cape Thompson in Alaska. As was pointed out to Teller, this harbor would have had no economic value. Among other things, the water was frozen for most of the year. Teller told the local people that surely they could find some useful task for these explosions. Teller could not have cared less so long as the tests went on. Finally, we have Star Wars.

Alas, this chimera is still with us, two decades after Teller persuaded President Reagan that a defense against nuclear-armed missiles was not only possible but feasible in a reasonably near future. The elements of the system kept changing as the various brainstorms emanating from Livermore turned out not to work. With each of them Teller announced how wonderful they were, conveniently ignoring data that disagreed. The final one was something called “Brilliant Pebbles,” involving devices whose number and size kept changing and that were supposed to float around in outer space. Teller managed to persuade the first President Bush to invest heavily in this scheme. The problem with it, and with the schemes that so captivate Bush’s son, is that it is easy and inexpensive to modify the offense to defeat them. Even worse, the effect of this development is, and was, to enhance the arms race. The current Administration has abandoned part of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and appears to be working on the development of new tactical nuclear weapons. Teller would have been pleased.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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